Tag Archives: German History

Messines 5

The Battle of Messines Ridge – 1917

From the opening months of the World War I, Flanders was the decisive sector for the British Army.  It was in an around the medieval Belgian town of Ypres that the original BEF had decimated themselves fending off German attacks from October to December, 1914.  Ypres and the salient surrounding it was where the British would see the hardest and most prolonged fighting of all the places where the British would fight in World War I.

The Battle of Messines Ridge fought from 7-14 June, 1914 was not really a separate battle at all but rather the opening phase of what would come to be known variously as the Third Battle of  Ypres or Passchendaele.

Messines 1

 

The Battlefield: Then and Now
The Battlefield: Then and Now

The Messines Ridge is on the southern shoulder of what was then the Ypres salient.  It is commanding terrain the possession of which allowed the German army to see almost all the way into the center of the city of Ypres itself and observe British movements inside the salient allowing the Germans to target British concentrations of troops very accurately.

The Ridge itself is not very high, about 90 feet, but that was more than high enough for military purposes given the flat nature of the terrain in Flanders near the coast.  I never fully appreciated the advantage to be gained from possession of a 90 foot ridge-line until my first visit to the battlefield in 2004 while on R&R from my tour in Iraq.  In Flanders a 90 foot difference in elevation makes all the difference in the world.

Possession of the Messines Ridge would allow the British to deny observation of a significant portion of their rear area to the German army and would also serve as an excellent stepping off point for follow on offensive operations both to expand the salient and effect the ever elusive breakout that all generals from any side fervently wished for.

The immediate commander and primary planner for the British forces in the lead-up to Messines Ridge was Gen. Herbert Plumer who had the unfortunate reputation with Haig of being a plodder.  Plumer reputation among the troops however was different.  He was on of the few British generals who the troops adored or even loved because of his well-known concern for their welfare and desire to avoid excessive casualties.

Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle
Aerial Photo of the Messines Ridge around St. Eloi taken on 23 Apr 1917 during planning for the battle

The plan Plumer came up with to take the ridge entailed the explosion of 25 mines that the Royal Army had laboriously emplaced under the ridge in the months leading up to the commencement of the offensive.  The mines ranged in size from the 96,500 lb St. Eloi mine to the 30,000 lb Petit Bois mines.  These were set to essentially demolish and demoralize the German front line trenches whereupon the British troops were expected to easily occupy them before the stunned Germans could react and throw them out.

A creeping barrage by 2/3 of the 2,200 artillery pieces available was to “shoot the attacking infantry in” once the mines exploded.  The rest of the artillery was reserved for use in the counter battery role to suppress German artillery to a depth of 9,000 yards along the attack front.

A preliminary bombardment lasting almost two weeks was also planned for the preparing the battlefield and hindering the Germans from reinforcing the sector to be attacked.  (NOTE:  preliminary bombardments of this style were not meant so much to destroy defensive works so much as to demoralize the enemy, injure defenders, and keep the enemies head down allowing attacking infantry to assault when the time came)

The Messines battle was the opening act of what was ultimately planned to be a British rupture of the German defenses in Flanders.  The overall plan failed.

At approximately  3:10 a.m. on the morning of June 7th, 1917 19 of the 25 emplaced mines exploded.  The 4 Birdcage mines were not detonated because the Germans had already evacuated the area by Zero-Hour and two failed to explode. The mines were wildly successful and the British troops did indeed essentially waltz into the German positions and establish occupancy.

The Germans attempted to counterattack on day one but they were unable to keep the British from occupying and holding the entirety of the first three lines of German trenches except for a portion of their third line which they retook from II ANZAC Corps.

On the morning of 8 June the II ANZAC Corps retook the section of the German third line they had been ejected from.  The rest of the British assault divisions set about consolidating the defenses in the newly won positions while the British artillery provided disrupting fire on German counterattacks while a portion of the artillery was displaced forward.

German artillery unleashed a massive bombardment on the captured trenches during which it is estimated that the British suffered up to 90% of their casualties during the battle.

Once large-scale German counterattacks stopped on 14 June the Messines sector settled down until the Passchendaele battle restarted active fighting in the beginning of July.

The Battle for Messines Ridge was one of the few arguably successful offensives of World War I prior to the offensives of the Last Hundred Days in 1918.

Messines 4

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Book Review: The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 by Richard Overy

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945 is one of those books that is going to end up a standard work for a long time to come.  It is the single most comprehensive history of the Allied bombing of Germany and occupied Europe during WWII that I have seen since the strategic bombing survey published by the US government in the immediate post-war years.

I have a review copy of the book so the page counts may be a little different in the published version.  The book itself is 561 pages with 78 pages of notes, a 26 pages bibliography, and an 18 page index.  It is divided into six chapters.  The first three chapters are a chronological account of the air war over Germany and the last three are thematic dealing with the logic of bombing and the campaigns in Italy and the occupied countries.

Every book about the war talks about the bombing campaign and most take for granted that it was effective at least partially in reducing Germany’s war-making ability.  This book examines the war in detail and tries to establish the effectiveness, if any, of the Allied bombing offensive.  The answer is mixed at best.

It has always struck me as odd that despite the expenditure of hundreds of tons of bombs and the devastation of the center and surrounding regions of most industrial towns in Germany, german war production continued to increase throughout the war.  Indeed, the most productive war of the month in terms of number of tanks and aircraft constructed was march of 1945.  Given that, how could it be said that the bombing campaign was successful as many historians and the leaders of the campaign claimed?

The point of bombing was not to kill civilians, but to reduce the war making capacity of Germany.  What Dr. Overy makes clear is that while industrial capacity was negatively affected in the wake of many raids, what was lost was regained and then some so rapidly that production halts were temporary at best.  he attributes this to two causes; one, bombing accuracy was abysmal, and two, the Germans were very good at repairing damage and getting production lines running again.

It was considered a good raid by the british if there bombs fell within 5 miles of the target and three Americans thought within 3 miles was good.  Bombing accuracy was so bad because the bombers flew very high to avoid AA fire and in the case of the English, they flew at night.  The lower the bombers flew, the more accurate they were but they also suffered horrendous losses at low altitude due to AA fire and German fighters.

Added to bombing inaccuracy, was the depth and responsiveness of the German Civil and Air Defense Systems.  The Germans had a multitude of agencies tasked with dealing with raiding damage and the German people themselves pitched in to make things good.  The striking thing is that the Germans could have been even more effective if they had streamlined their civil defense organizations and avoided having a plethora of agencies trying to do the same thing.

The story of the bombing of italy shows that where the germans were very good, the Italians were very bad and italian civilians suffered as a result.  Of special interest is the discussion of the bombing of occupied countries and the response of the occupied people to the destruction and loss of life inherent in being bombed to get their freedom.

This is an outstanding book and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they are knowledgeable about the Allied Bombing campaign of WWII.  The book dispels some myths and puts the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of strategic bombing in context to who the war was won and the Nazis defeated.

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Book Review: No End Save Victory by David Kaiser

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War is one of

those books that at first glance looks like it is going to be one of those dry, difficult to read history books that is nothing more than a litany of dates and facts.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is an interesting and compelling account of the events in America during the 18 months prior to American entry into WWII.  Oddly, this period is mentioned in every history of the war but the actual events in the US are glossed over such that American entry into the war is painted as inevitable.  David Kaiser’s work puts that notion to rest as he details the methods and means whereby FDR led the country into war.

The review copy I received is 343 pages of text with 40 pages of notes and an index.  It is divided into 9 chronological chapters that cover the period from May, 1940 to December, 1941 and America’s entry into World War II.

The text is engaging and very well written.  What struck me most about the period was the amount of foresight by FDR in setting up and guiding the apparatus to get America ready for fighting a global war.  The strategic changes between planning for hemispheric defense and projecting American power into Europe and the pacific are dealt with extremely well.  He also makes clear the extent to which FDR had to overcome resistance from within the government and military to entry into the war while at the same time trying to hold back the more hawkish members of his Cabinet.

One of the episodes that he deals with is the development of what came to be known as the Victory Plan.  I found it refreshing that he puts to rest the myth of Major Albert C. Wedemeyer putting the Victory Plan together by himself.  He correctly identifies that the Victory Plan was a collaborative effort between the military, industry, and civilian planners.  This point is also not belabored.  Wedemeyer made his name post-war on the claims that he developed the Victory Plan almost single handedly and subsequent research has exposed that for the myth that it is.

Another thing covered very well in the book is the extent to which government had to both control and cajole industry and labor to get them behind the effort of switching from civilian to war production.  This is something that is presented as a matter of course in most histories and this book exposes that for the hard effort that it was.

Most of all, the role of FDR is highlighted as the guiding force behind American preparedness for war.  The period prior to America’s entry into World War II is very interesting because it was never a done deal that America would enter the war despite the feeling among most policy makers that war was inevitable.  All the preparation and planning would not have made a whit of difference if the American people had not committed themselves to war.  That commitment came in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but it was the planning done by FDR and the military in the months prior to Pearl Harbor that meant America was ready, or nearly ready when war did come.

I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in World War II, but especially to people who think they are familiar with America’s role in that war.  An outstanding book.

 

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Book Review: Verdun – The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is one of the flood of new works coming out about World War I this year in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the world’s first truly mechanized war.  This book explores the ten month (or eleven, depending on how you count it) battle of Verdun between the Germans and French from February to November 1916.

It consists of eleven chapters arranged thematically that examine different aspects of the battle from the operational movements of the forces involved to the way the battle was described in the contemporary press to the role of the battle in modern memory.  There is an extensive appendix on sources, a 29 page list of endnotes and a 20 page bibliography.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is not a battle history in the traditional sense of the word.  here is no bow by blow account of the opening days of the battle and the fall of the french forts at Vaux and Duouamont and the subsequent French recapture of much of the contested ground over the course of the battle.  The book is both more and less than battle history at the same time.  it examines the battle and the role it played in the course of the war from many angles both military and civilian.

I found the chapters discussing the views of the battle by the French and German commands especially revealing.  The standard account is that the Germans intended all along for Verdun to be a battle of attrition and that the French chose to fight so hard there as a matter of honor.  That myth is exploded in these two chapters and the way in which the battle became a matter of prestige and developed a logic of it’s own is explored in detail.  Given the level of casualties on both sides that the battle evolved into one of prestige makes sense.

Even more revealing is the discussion of the various ways in which the battle was portrayed by the media.  A good picture of the way in which the media can sway public opinion and force policy decisions is described in the media portrayals of the Battle at Verdun.  The last part of the book that examines the way the memory of the battle has been shaped and its amazing transformation from a symbol of french determination to a landmark of multiculturalism  and a monument to the futility of war is revealing in the extreme.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is well-written and logically presented and while it is not traditional battle history it is rewarding to read nonetheless.  Verdun was one of the greatest blood-lettings of World War I, though not the greatest as it has been said, that was the opening months of the war.  It is time for an objective re-examination of this supposedly pivotal battle that in the end achieved nothing of strategic significance, unless you think killing off a large cohort of enemy troops is strategic results.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War I and even more to people who want to understand how the perceptions of wars and battles are shaped more by those who were not there than than by those who were.

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Book Review: A Mad Catastrophe by Geoffrey Wawro

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the first book I have read about WWI that does not treat Austro-Hungary as an afterthought after the outbreak of the fighting in August 1914.  In fact, Austria-Hungary and the course of the fighting in Serbia and Galicia in the first year of the war is the central theme of the book.  Dr. Wawro applies his usual exhaustive research methods to exploring the course and cause of the Austro-Hungarian demarche to war in 1914.  Given that World War I is also one of my areas of specialty in historical study I won’t say that I agree with him 100%, I rarely do.  However, he provides an insightful look into the reasons why the Austro-Hungarian army failed so miserably in 1914 despite being considered one of the more powerful armies in Europe.

The book itself consists of 385 pages of text with illustrations and maps scattered throughout.  There are 40 pages of notes, a four page bibliography and an extensive index.  The body of the text is divided into 14 chronological chapters that run from the pre-war years to the end of the war.

The main focus of the book is the months leading up to the outbreak of war, the pre-war  diplomatic maneuvering, and the disastrous performance of the Austro-Hungarian army against both the Serbs in Serbia and Russians in Galicia.  He describes the tactical and structural reasons for Austrian failure quite well.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Austrians or Germans were at fault for the outbreak of the war.  That is quibbling however, as an argument can certainly be made that the Central Powers bear the lion’s share of the blame.  I just happen to disagree with that interpretation.  Dr. Wawro however, makes a powerful case that Austria is to blame for the war  by the way they frittered away the opportunity for a localized war with Serbia because of internal and external political considerations.

I found it odd that he excoriates the Austrian Army for clinging to outmoded notions of the utility of the bayonet charge in the face of machine guns and quick-firing artillery.  He almost makes out as though the Austrians were the only army to have this idea, which is false.  No European army had anticipated the destructive and defensive potential of these developments prior to 1914.  The Austrians were not the only ones.  The French in particular are notable for their “cult of the offensive” in 1914 which caused the French to suffer massive casualties in the opening months of the war as they launched fruitless mass infantry attacks into the teeth of German machine guns only to be mown down like hay for the harvest.

French Tirailleurs of 1914
French Tirailleurs of 1914

He criticizes the Austrian Army for their choice of a blue-gray uniform that did not provide much in the way of camouflage in the forests of Serbia or the Galician plain.  Blue-gray is actually much better than the sky blue greatcoat and bright red pantaloons that French troops wore without even mentioning the bright fez and baggy pants of the French Tirailleurs Sénégalais of 1914.  The Austrians were not alone in doing stupid things.

Perhaps the biggest failure the Austrian’s can be accused of is their lack of equipment, especially artillery given the way the rest of Europe was armed and their poor efforts at making their multi-ethnic army effective.  Dr. Wawro is absolutely correct that Austrian Army had apparently learned nothing from their drubbing at the hands of Prussian in 1866.  The Austrians had done little to improve integration of ethnicities in the army.  The efforts at integration were also hamstrung by the internal politics of the empire and Franz Joseph’s continual capitulations to the Hungarians after the founding of the dual monarchy.

All in all this is an excellent book that belongs on the shelf of every World War I scholar.  It provides a look at the major belligerent that is largely ignored in most English language scholarship and that played the central role in how, why, and when the war began.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire is a long overdue look at an important facet of World War I.  Dr. Wawro is the scholar to give that facet the treatment it deserve and he does so outstandingly.  I highly recommend this book.  If you only buy one of the flood of World War I books that appear in this year of the Centenary Commemoration of the outbreak of war, this should be it.